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Victor's Tragic Virtue

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Many readers who cross the literary environs and pages of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818) will close the last pages of the book and consider Victor Frankenstein as one who is tragically flawed. After all, Victor did create life as a god and spurned to destroy his very creation, screaming into insanity: "all was the work of my thrice-accursed hands" (Shelley 71). Victor's creation, never given a name in the novel, would pursue his master's life to the cataclysm of losing all that was loved in the world. However, one would be at fault for calling Victor a tragic hero too quickly, as many have called Shakespeare's Macbeth and Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. Rather, Victor's attempt to create life, preserve that which he admired most in all of God's realm cannot be accurately claimed as a flaw; instead, Victor's virtue of acquiring knowledge for the greater good of mankind overshadows his flaws as a parent and guardian of the creature.

Initially, Victor Frankenstein aspires to the greatness of mankind and the heavens. He spends all his free time in earnest pursuit of science and destroying the one thing all humanity must face: Death. Victor confesses that "it was the secrets of heaven and earth that [he] desired to learn" (Shelley 23). Who would not desire to know what God knows? How many times have people beckoned to understand those infamous questions which God alone resides to hide: Where do we go after death? Where does life come from? Victor, alone with his virtue, decides to answer these questions. After all, if one man can conquer death for another, how much would the world inherit goodness? Therefore, is seeking knowledge in a selfless manner to provide a better future for the world a flaw?

James P. Hammersmith clarifies the distinction between the "tragic flaw", as many have claimed Victor to have, and the "tragic virtue" (Web). A character who has a "tragic flaw" would be one whose virtues and morals are dictated by "circumstances [that] conspire to transform the predisposition into a burden and an obstacle--but the trait is not in itself a "flaw" of any kind" (Hammersmith Web). Victor's obsessive attempt and success at creating life from death is in fact a virtue, goodness finding the world; however, in the direct opposite, one who brings death into the world rather than life must be tragically flawed, in the Aristotelian understanding. Victor, rather, seeks life and not death. He reflects to Captain Walton, "Under the guidance of my new preceptors I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life" (25). The knowledge of life and its saving faculties from death are in no way a flaw in the practical sense, just as a scientist might seek to solve a destructive cancer in a terminal patient.

Furthermore, Victor, sadly, is misidentified as "tragic" just as Macbeth is done by critics. Macbeth's ambition to succeed in his ranks cannot be defined as "tragic" in any form; "the trait, the 'ambition,' does not turn upon the protagonist until circumstances--the King's proximity, Lady Macbeth's being who she is and no other--conspire to afford the opportunity for the hero to pervert the trait or to direct it to fatal ends" (Hammersmith Web). This ambitious virtue of Victor, much like Macbeth, is not a flaw but in fact a virtue. It is an opportunity of moral excellence for Victor until he "perverts" it to a "fatal end" by neglecting the life in which he created. Victor remarks that his own father provided "one paternal kind precaution" in having Clerval accompany Victor abroad to England, and yet, Victor fled from the life he gave, leaving it companion less. After many years, the creature finally confronts his god with these haunting words on Mont Blanc (the White "Stainless" Mountain): "You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life" (81)? Victor's virtue, by his own purpose to destroy the inherent beauty of the creature becomes his true tragic flaw. Even the creature agrees and understands that ambition, like Macbeth, is not a flaw. The creature tells Victor on the mountain that he has learned that:

"To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm" (Shelley 100).

Victor, in the beginning much like Macbeth, held not one tragic flaw in his marrow. The virtue, instead, was to become "great and virtuous" and it was only

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